Kill la Kill is one of those rare series that has delivered just about everything I could possibly want in a story and then some. It has impressed me so much that I actively analyzed and took notes on it as I watched/re-watched, which honestly hasn’t happened for me before. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of Kill la Kill articles focusing on queerness, religion, coming of age as a girl, and oppression. Most of my analyses are just my own thoughts plus the show. Today’s theme, post 1 of 4, is queerness.
Queerness, and romance in general, are not the central focus of Kill la Kill. All of the main characters are far more concerned with their world-changing goals to spare any time for romantic involvement. That being said, a handful of characters show some levels of overt queerness (though technically, the entire cast could be queer as assuming straightness as the default is heteronormative).
Kill la Kill treats queerness as a very natural part of the world and the characters. It’s so natural to them that it’s not something they ever dwell on or obsess over; they simply act on it or accept it in the ways that suit their characters. Queerness has several different manifestations depending on the other qualities it’s tied to, qualities that other aspects of each character’s personality bring to it. Not all of these manifestations are positive (see rainbow trash mom Ragyo), but together they present a queerness that goes deeper than cutesy high school romance (which wouldn’t fit into KLK very well anyway).
Ryuko x Mako: Illogical, Nonsensical Dedication
This is perhaps the most positive, consensual, and healthy expression of queerness in the show and it’s the one that’s given the most attention. Much of it is due to Mako’s unapologetic personality. She’s a ditz who is simultaneously stubborn and sweet and whose idiocy only adds to her willpower and perseverance. What would Kill la Kill be without strong-willed characters? Mako has nothing to be embarrassed about, so she has nothing to hide, even if those with more sense would try being discreet. When it comes to Ryuko, Mako makes up her mind from the moment her family adopts Ryuko. Mako shows nothing but undying affection as well as unapologetic attraction. Early on in the series, Mako is right there with the crowd of generic male students ogling over Ryuko in her transformed Kamui getup. She thinks Ryuko has a nice rack and nosebleeds when she sees it.
More seriously, Mako seems to find some sense of herself and reality in Ryuko. In episode 7, when Mako gets her two-star uniform and becomes the Fight Club president (cue every joke ever about Fight Club), she actually replaces Ryuko as her stronghold with the wealth and comfort her family now lives in thanks to her performance at school. The fear of being poor again is enough to make her fight desperately to keep her position, and who can blame her in a society with such extreme and arbitrary class divisions? Yet Ryuko, who’s doing all of the work to make Fight Club successful, reaches her limit. No amount of money will replace the family dinners she misses so much or the feeling that she actually has a family. This divide leads to a fight between the two and Ryuko, choosing friendship over victory, simply lets Mako beat her up for a long, long time. At length, all Ryuko needs to do is smile and Mako finally remembers that Ryuko is her anchor, not social standing. She makes the illogical decision to choose Ryuko over comfort. This choice is illogical not because it’s foolish, but because it goes against protecting a better means of living. However, by refusing to fight for the comforts afforded by an unequal and oppressive social system, Mako’s return to Ryuko is one of many hints at the way illogic and nonsense defeat evil (not to mention that Ryuko herself embodies standing against the status quo). “Right next to you is the safest place!” says Mako to Ryuko in episode 15 as Osaka is exploding around them. She consistently chooses Ryuko over self-preservation no matter how dangerous the circumstances.
For Ryuko, the feeling is mutual, although she doesn’t fully understand what she feels for Mako, nor does she have much time to explore it. Very late in the series, she admits that Mako and Senketsu are more than just friends to her, but beyond that she has no other language to identify her feelings. However, Senketsu immediately notices the effect that Mako has on Ryuko. Jumping back toward the beginning of the show, Senketsu states “Your heart rate and pulse have returned to normal. So, she is the key to getting you to relax, right?” In context, this relaxing effect saves Ryuko and enables her to fight longer, or at least not pass out. Mako is the only one who can reach Ryuko’s heart and seems to be the only person who will make Ryuko stop in her tracks no matter what happens.
This idea of Mako being the only thing that calms Ryuko peaks in two events: when Ryuko is completely consumed by Senketsu in the first arc and when she is completely consumed by Junketsu in the second arc. “When I was drunk on power,” Mako says to Ryuko when Senketsu has taken over her, “you were the one who brought me to my senses and now it’s my turn.” Mako knows that Ryuko would never hurt her and may even know just how much she affects Ryuko. Again, this is either a sign of lucky idiocy or the nonsensical dedication that ultimately overthrows the kind of one-cloth world that Ragyo aims to create. This is highlighted again when Ryuko is wearing Junketsu and has no control over her actions.
I say that she has no control here because Junketsu was forced upon her and now the actual Ryuko is deep in this false state of bliss that wearing Junketsu creates. In this state, she’s given the family she always wanted and the visions of her life follow a very logical/ideal pattern: two supportive parents, a normal life at school, and growing up to get married. These visions are free of the pain she has felt at losing her father, not having a real family, and living in a world where she is constantly angry and fighting. However, these visions are nothing more than a blatant escapism from reality. Ryuko may feel blissful and at peace, but in reality she is being used and abused by Junketsu and Ragyo and has lost all sense of herself. So deep is she is this cesspool that, on the outside, she fights desperately to defend it and the false bliss conveniently masks the abuse that she is actually experiencing, making it impossible for her to break the illusion for herself.
Mako, of course, immediately sees that this is not the Ryuko she knows and without hesitation, she does everything she can to bring Ryuko back. Remember that Mako is consistently the one person who has any sort of immediate calming effect on Ryuko, but when Mako breaks into Ryuko’s wedding dream, it seems hopeless as even the internal Ryuko will do everything she can to defend this dream despite the fact that her spouse-to-be is a headless Cover, not even a real person. However, with a bit of sacrifice from Senketsu, Mako is finally able to make Ryuko wake up and return to the nonsensical reality. This reality may be broken, but Mako is there and Ryuko has freedom in the chaos.
I’ll come back to this scene in other posts, but what I want to highlight here is how the love between Ryuko and Mako undermines the various oppressive powers they encounter. Ryuko’s blissful visions can be seen as subtly heteronormative in that she appears to be marrying a man. Heteronormativity is a piece of this logical, carefree life pattern that wearing Junketsu presents to her, but it is gray scaled/sepia toned and it is simply not Ryuko’s reality. Mako becomes a reminder of this and calls Ryuko back to freedom in a world that doesn’t make sense. In a way, this is a “coming out” for Ryuko as her relationship with Mako restores her sense of self. The bliss of wearing life fibers, as Satsuki observes, is the bliss of slavery. It distracts the wearer with images of complacency while it perpetuates evils unnoticed. This is one example of how systematic oppression works: fabricate comfortable patterns for existence to quell resistance and keep the evils of abuse in the shadows.
Mako and Ryuko are each other’s anchors and peace. Before the very last battle with Ragyo, Mako blatantly asks Ryuko on a date when she returns and Ryuko accepts without hesitation. Though this is also one of Kill la Kill’s many, many examples of exaggerating every possible anime trope ever, it is also an example of how Ryuko and Mako have found stability in their relationship and will fight for a world where such a relationship can exist in freedom. These two are undeniably queer and undeniably canon. It is one of the prime examples of how radical, illogical, and nonsensical love overcomes oppressive systems.
**NOTE: Read the comments between R and I for an argument that Ryumako is not healthy**
Nui x Ryuko: Fascination and Desire for Control
From the moment Nui arrives on the scene, the entire plot of Kill la Kill begins to unravel. Despite being the Grand Couturier whose task is to sew things together, she actually makes things fall apart for both Ryuko and Satsuki. Nui’s playful personality combined with her lack of concern for consequences make her a catalyst for Ryuko’s loss of control. From the start, Nui is enamored with Ryuko. Though her infatuation may seem steeped with sarcasm at first, or just a ruse to get under Ryuko’s skin, I think it’s actually genuine, especially since she never really stops hitting on Ryuko every chance she gets.
However, Nui, being born directly from the original life fiber and completely in line with Ragyo’s goals, is largely interested in control and manipulation. Her feelings for Ryuko are real and she wants Ryuko for herself. How does she ensure that she “gets the girl” while simultaneously eliminating an obstacle for Ragyo? By threading Junketsu to Ryuko and thereby forcing Junketsu onto her. With this done, Ryuko is technically under Nui’s control and is incapable of repelling Nui. Nothing that Nui and Ragyo do to Ryuko while she’s wearing Junketsu is consensual. By extension, nothing that Ryuko does or says is truly coming from her own self or her own will. In this part of the story, Ryuko has no agency. She may feel bliss and pleasure, but it’s a deceptive mask of reality. Even the orgy scene at the beginning of episode 21 shows that Ryuko is stunned more than anything. While Ragyo and Nui are free to move around, Ryuko is tied up by red threads, showing that both of them have completely subjugated her. Ryuko’s kiss with Nui, in my opinion, is another instance of this control, even though it seems to surprise Nui. Though Nui may not have expected the kiss, it’s still something that happened because she tied Junketsu to Ryuko–because of her (and Ragyo’s) desire to control her.
Alternatively, the kiss could be an instance of Ryuko’s will overcoming what’s happening to her, even if just for a brief moment. She most definitely forces the kiss on Nui. She grabs Nui’s collar and pulls her close before Nui even has a chance to react. Though Ryuko is not at all in her right mind, there could be something subconscious that’s enacting payback for forcing Junketsu onto her.
There are many ways to interpret the relationship between these two, but one thing is expressly clear: no matter the reasons, the end goal is dominance over the other. It’s mostly Nui who wants to dominate Ryuko and perhaps leave Ryuko no choice but to attempt giving her a taste of her own medicine. Here, queerness becomes corrupted into a manipulative power. Nui choses to act on her crush, which is harmless and not problematic at all, by forcing Ryuko into a Kamui–and a mindset–that’s more suitable to her desires.
Ragyo x Satsuki, Ryuko, and Nui
Calling Ragyo “queer” is a stretch to me largely because I think she uses sex as power and is not necessarily “in love” with her daughters, which is why I’m only talking about her a little bit here. Furthermore, I have to be very careful not to suggest that queerness, incest, and sexual abuse are one in the same because they are most certainly not (as we see in healthy queer relationships like Ryuko and Mako). However, her actions are such a vital part of the story that I can’t ignore discussing them. In my opinion, Ragyo is the ultimate misappropriator: she takes things that are good or neutral (e.g., clothes, sex, theology) and misuses them to achieve her agenda of silence (via Life Fibers), domination, and submission to her will. She twists the story of Genesis 3 to suit the purpose of her giant corporation (which I will discuss more in depth in a separate post). Similarly, she takes rainbows (a sign of pride in the LGBT+ community as well as a symbol of God’s promise not to flood the Earth again in the Old Testament) and associates them with her abuse, her will for silence, and her ruthlessness–things that rainbows were not meant to symbolize.
In terms of rainbows being a queer symbol, Ragyo takes what should be a sign of love and makes it a sign of her manipulation and corporate agenda, which is really tied to her world domination agenda. She exaggerates and abuses this aesthetic just as she abuses Satsuki and Ryuko.
Nui seems to be the only one who enjoys/consents to sex with Ragyo, although Ragyo even uses her as a tool in the end and Nui gladly kills herself (sort of) at Ragyo’s command without hesitation. Is Nui really as independent and willful as she seems, or does Ragyo have complete control over her as well? I don’t think there’s a clear answer here.
What I do think is clear is that Ragyo uses queerness as an illusion to mask the heinousness of her actions and further her goals. She doesn’t use it for love or any expression of being a marginalized person overcoming oppressive social structures–she uses it for the antithesis of what it’s all meant to stand for in the first place. So, I only discuss Ragyo here to begin unpacking how her entire modus operandi is misappropriation.
I headcannon many of the other characters as ace (Satsuki, Inamura, Kinase, to name a few). Kill la Kill’s story is so focused on everyone fighting each other, fighting against the Kiryuin family, and fighting against the Life Fibers that orientation really isn’t important. Nonnon’s feelings toward Satsuki could just be the feelings of dedicated friendship or she could be in love with her (I ship it, so there’s that). The series doesn’t give too much attention to their relationship; however I’d classify Nonnon’s attitude toward Satsuki as similar to Mako’s attitude toward Ryuko. Both are dedicated to their respective best friends/love interests for the long-term no matter what.
Finally, I’ve entertained the thought of Senketsu being trans since he is technically female clothing with a male voice. The implications of Senketsu being trans are beyond what I feel I can analyze and formulate an opinion about, but at the very least, no one in KLK ever questions why a set of women’s clothing has any bit of masculinity attached to it. As with queerness (orientation), queerness (gender) seems to be something that is simply accepted in the world of KLK, even though it doesn’t overtly deal with the gender spectrum.
Kill la Kill presents several different manifestations of queerness, some good and healthy and others concerned more with power than love/dignity toward the other person. When queerness is overt, it’s never contested or questioned. It’s quite normalized, which is important for representation. What becomes questionable is not queerness itself, but how each character expresses it, which says more about the right/wrong way to treat others in general rather than defining queerness as a particular type of expression.
What I’ve outlined here is certainly not exhaustive–what do you think of Kill la Kill’s queer characters? I’d love to hear about any thoughts on asexual or transgender representation (or lack thereof).
Next week: Girlhood and Magical Uniforms: Coming of Age in Kill la Kill